NEW YORK: The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington is to become the primary recipient of a gift of the world's finest collection of textiles from Central Asia.
This will include textiles from Farghana, the former kingdom of Babar, the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India, the gallery announced.
The gift, from the Guido Goldman Collection, is considered a major scoop by the Sackler which, along with the Freer centre, is the national gallery for Asian art.
Connoisseurs regard Central Asian textile craftsmen as precursors of 20th century abstract art.
The Sackler's extensive loan policy will enable US and foreign museums to mount major textile exhibitions in the future.
Twelve American and European museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Jewish Museum in New York, will receive smaller donations of the Guido Goldman Collection.
A comprehensive catalogue of the Goldman Collection received the George Wittenborn Memorial Award in 1997.
Goldman came to be interested in the hand-woven silk textiles, a rare and comparatively short-lived flowering of an ancient art, after a chance viewing of them in a New York gallery.
The Central Asian textile art is called ikat, a Malay-Indonesian word. It is an intricate technique - similar to batik of Indonesia and bandhni of Gujarat and Rajasthan - in which threads are patterned by repeated binding and dyeing before they are woven.
In traditional ikat making, also called resist-dye weaving, the design is painstakingly dyed directly on to the fabric's individual threads, yielding a diffused, richly coloured pattern.
Practised by master craftsmen in the kingdoms of Bukhara and Samarkand, and the Farghana Valley, along the fabled Silk Route, ikat had a sudden resurgence in the 18th and 19th centuries, before being snuffed out by machine-made imitations following the Russian conquest of Central Asia.
At the turn of the 19th century, Central Asia had become a forgotten backwater of the Islamic world. Thus, at a time when local the products of European industry were overtaking crafts around the world, along the Silk Route benefited from isolation and cultural conservatism.
While the inroads of industrialism caused such crafts as that of India's muslin weaving to die, ikat survived around the desert oases cities of Samarkand, Bokhara and Farghana.
However, the flowering of the art lasted only a short time. By the late 1800s, the introduction of synthetic dyes ended the production of such richly hued, hand-dyed textiles as those represented in the Guido Goldman Collection.
Along the Silk Route in what is now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan - ikat production involved guild-trained craftsmen of many backgrounds. While Tajiks specialized in the dyeing of the red and yellow colours, and Uzbeks and Iranians were the weavers, Jews controlled the dyeing and trade of indigo blue.
Fabrication of ikats required a complex, technical process involving all of these different ethnic groups. The process was so intricate that it sometimes took as long as two months to dye and weave just one ikat wall hanging.
Offering striking parallels to abstract paintings of the modern era, ikat fabrics often underscored their owners' wealth and social prominence.
Ikat weavings were made into robes and hangings that were frequently part of a woman's dowry and clothing that defined the wearer's social position as well as into fabrics that accompanied all life cycle rituals, covering everything from the wedding bed to the casket. For example, the bride price paid by a Jewish groom in 1874 was calculated in bolts of fabric, fine clothing and ikat robes.